Environmental Law: Understanding our Laws and Regulations

In 1969, the pollution-choked Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland. While this was not the first time that this had happened, in an era of societal change, the alarming images of a burning waterway caught the nation’s attention, leading to the passage of America’s first environmental protection laws. Examples of federal laws put in place to protect our air, water, and land include the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act.

The Clean Air Act sets standards for air quality by regulating the emissions of air pollutants. Vehicles and furnaces, for example, produce toxic emissions as they burn fossil fuels. The air quality standards set by the Clean Air Act aim to reduce the risks and harmful health effects associated with air pollution. The Clean Air Act was amended in 1990 to introduce technology-based standards for sources that either emit or have the potential to emit ten or more tons of a single air pollutant per year or 25 or more tons of combined air pollutants per year. Meanwhile, the Clean Water Act serves a similar role for the nation’s waterways, regulating the release of pollutants into bodies of water and surface water quality standards.

The Toxic Substances Control Act gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to require restrictions, reporting, testing, and records related to chemicals. Some chemical substances, such as food and prescription medications, do not fall under the Toxic Substances Control Act. In 2016, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act amended the Toxic Substances Control Act, providing a new risk-based safety standard, a mandatory EPA evaluation requirement for existing chemicals with well-defined, enforceable deadlines, a constant funding source for the EPA’s implementation of its updated responsibilities, and more public transparency regarding information about chemicals.

Many laws protecting the environment have been enacted at the federal level by Congress and are enforced by the Department of Justice, but states, counties, and towns have also stepped up to pass their own legislation, which they must enforce themselves. These include littering laws as well as bottle bills, measures that aim to encourage the recycling of beverage bottles.

  • What Is Environmental Law? Environmental law emerged in the 1970s as a growing field, opening up new career options. Read about the areas the practice can cover and what environmental lawyers do for their clients here.
  • The History of the Environmental Protection Agency: Learn about the history of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, what the agency has accomplished through the years, and important historical milestones.
  • Center for International Environmental Law: Who advocates for environmental law on a global scale? The Center for International Environmental Law maintains programs that work to change U.S., European Union, and international environmental policy.
  • BEACH Act of 2015: The goal of the BEACH Act is to reduce the disease risk of those who enjoy U.S. beaches for recreational purposes. Learn about the EPA’s responsibilities here.
  • Endangered Species: Protection for endangered species is a part of environmental law. This link contains information on protected species under the Endangered Species Act.
  • Marine Life and Ecosystems: Environmental laws protect marine life, too. This link gives an overview of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
  • National Environmental Policy Act: President Nixon signed this law on Jan. 1, 1970. Read about the objectives behind the law on this page.
  • How the U.S. Has Protected the Environment: Find out more about the laws that have made our air and water cleaner.
  • Ozone Layer on the Mend, Thanks to Chemical Ban: The 1987 Montreal Protocol was an international treaty that banned chlorofluorocarbons, a type of chemical that damages the ozone layer and was once found in household products.
  • Federal Acid Rain Program: In 1990, the Acid Rain Program was created as part of amendments to the Clean Air Act. The program’s goal was to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions that were acidifying our water supply.
  • National Park Service: Laws and Regulations: The site provides an overview of how environmental laws and regulations apply to the country’s national parks.
  • Justice Department Division of Environment and Natural Resources: How does the Justice Department get involved in the environment and environmental law? Find out more here.
  • Enforcing Environmental Laws: The federal government is in charge of enforcing nationwide regulations, but states also have their own environmental rules and people in charge of enforcing them.
  • Airports and the Environment: Read about the Airport Environmental Program, the FAA’s effort to ensure compliance with environmental laws that affect airports, such as noise restrictions and land development regulations.
  • Restrictions on GMOs: Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, exist in the U.S. food supply. A patchwork of federal regulations governs how these crops are used in order to protect the existing ecosystem.
  • Coal Ash in North Carolina: Protecting the environment doesn’t only fall to the federal government to handle. This page discusses the state of North Carolina’s efforts to stop coal ash pollution.
  • Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Laws: See the laws, regulations, and guidelines for oil and gas exploration in Pennsylvania, a state that is host to the controversial practice of fracking.
  • Coal Mining Regulations: Learn about the federal regulations and requirements that pertain to coal mining at this link.
  • The Clean Air Act: Find an overview of this key environmental law and how it has helped to make our world cleaner since it was enacted in 1970.
  • Federal Water Pollution Control Act: Commonly called the Clean Water Act, this law, first passed in 1972, has helped to make our water supply safer.
  • Council on Environmental Quality: An executive order established this council in 1993. The council helps provide oversight for the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act. Learn about the roles and responsibilities of the council on this page.
  • Recycling in Oregon: At the state and local level, recycling laws are a popular way to help save the environment.
  • Tree Protection: Montgomery County, Maryland, is among many municipalities that have laws protecting trees.
  • Why Rivers No Longer Burn: Read this article to learn about the success of the Clean Water Act.
  • Gasoline and the Clean Air Act: How does gasoline use impact the environment, and what steps have been taken to reduce its harmful impacts? Find out here.
  • Environmental Laws Applicable to FEMA: Explore a list of environmental laws and executive orders that directly apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s activities.
  • Beverage Container Deposit Laws: Ten states have laws mandating that people pay a deposit when buying certain beverages, which they can get back if they recycle the bottles at a redemption center.
  • Pesticide Laws and Regulations: What are the main laws and regulations governing the use of pesticides? Learn more on this page.
  • The Legalities of Littering: Littering is illegal anywhere you go, but the specific rules and penalties will vary from place to place.
  • Superfund Law: A 1980 law commonly called the Superfund law established a federal fund to be used to clean up toxic waste sites.
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